Thursday, January 5, 2012

Characters whom everyone loves


Recently I read Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, one of the grand old novels of the romance genre. One reason I didn’t enjoy it was the near-universal adoration of the heroine by the other characters, and that made me think of characters loved by everyone.

1. Give them a reason for this.

If it’s not obvious to the readers why so many people love this character, it’s going to be difficult for them to share the feeling. Worse, it’s likely to turn them off. In real life, people who are very obviously beautiful have their admirers, but they may also have detractors or people who just don’t like them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In fiction, a character will need more than stunning good looks, given that paragraphs of description are likely to be ineffective unless very well written. So such characters should have other qualities, traits, goals or backstories that show why they’re so well liked.

That was something I enjoyed about Richard Adams’s The Girl in a Swing. The narrator marries a woman called Karin, despite knowing nothing about her past, and it’s made clear throughout the story that people find her extremely attractive. But it wasn’t until my second read of the novel that I realized Adams never actually said what Karin looked like. He mentions her clothes, but not her hair or height or the color of her eyes.

So she’s as much of an enigma physically as she is in other ways, but that technique puts the focus on her charming mannerisms, dialogue and actions rather than her looks, and it works very well.

2. Consider not making them the protagonist.

It’s easier to like characters who are near-perfect when they play a secondary role. Gone with the Wind probably wouldn’t have been so popular if Melanie rather than Scarlett had been the heroine, and taking such a paragon out of the spotlight nearly always makes them easier to like.

In Orson Scott Card’s Hart's Hope, the Flower Princess is described as the most beautiful woman in the world because she has never told a lie, meaning she’s both morally and physically perfect. People everywhere love her. But she’s not the main character, and she loses her bridegroom, her position, her freedom and her beauty in one day, making her sympathetic rather than saccharine.

3. Don’t make it a moral yardstick.

If all the good characters love the heroine and all the villains hate her (or are jealous of her, or lust unrequitedly after her), she’s going to come off as a Mary Sue. The other characters’ feelings toward the protagonist shouldn’t be a sign of their moral development. No matter how benevolent or cruel people are in real life, there’s sure to be someone who hates or loves them regardless.

4. Give them consequences

What are the consequences of everyone loving you? Maybe the fact that you’re placed on a pedestal from which you can only fall, never rise. Maybe the fact that the people who love you the most can rarely evaluate your skills objectively or give you the kind of tough training you might need to succeed at a task.

Unconditional, unchanging love is like an unconditional and unchanging supply of anything: eventually it loses its appeal. I’d like to read a story where a character had such a powerful charismatic appeal that he or she was universally loved – but grew to secretly hate this.



4 comments:

DRC said...

interesting - as always.

I like my characters to have flaws. It makes them more human - and gives others a reason to either hate them or love them. My last character suffered a traumatic childhood which caused him to grow afraid of letting anyone too close. By doing this, he caused himself to become an outcast in his town. Hate is a pretty strong word to use, but the others didn't take too well to him. However, when you realise what he's been through, it stands to reason why he is the way he is, why he constantly pushes people away, and that deep down he's a decent guy.

ralfast said...

I like how J.K. Rowling handled it. The same thing that causes some people to idolize the character causes other to hate him and even people who support him one day are quick to turn on him the next. Even his best friend suffers from this and not simply because he turn evil all of the sudden.

Better to show a character earning the respect of others than having adoration bestowed upon them just because they are the MCs.

gypsyscarlett said...

Well put, Marian.

One of the worst Mary Sues was the character of Sydney Bristow on Alias. It wasn't because she was good-looking, intelligent, and a nice person. (having good, or mostly good qualities does not make one a Mary or Gary Stu).

No. It was because she could do EVERYTHING. (I'm not exagerrating there). ALL the men either fell in love with her, or at least really, really, really respected her. Including the baddies, so they never tried *that* hard to kill her.

ALL the other female characters were either evil, or killed off.

gypsyscarlett said...

Well put, Marian.

One of the worst Mary Sues was the character of Sydney Bristow on Alias. It wasn't because she was good-looking, intelligent, and a nice person. (having good, or mostly good qualities does not make one a Mary or Gary Stu).

No. It was because she could do EVERYTHING. (I'm not exagerrating there). ALL the men either fell in love with her, or at least really, really, really respected her. Including the baddies, so they never tried *that* hard to kill her.

ALL the other female characters were either evil, or killed off.